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IA-Forum Interview: Meir Javedanfar

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International Affairs Forum: Do you see Iran as a true threat?

Mr. Meir Javedanfar: I think it’s a real strategic threat. Iran is acting and behaving like a regional superpower. It’s creating buffer states and alliances across the Middle East; and its influence on Iraq and Lebanon are there for everyone to see. If and when Iran gets its hands on a nuclear weapons program, I think it can be considered an existential threat even though I think the chances of Iran using it are not very high. Yet it is likely to threaten Israel with it, and such a threat could cause considerable economic damage to Israel. It could cause a major demographic shift because many companies may not want to invest in a country that’s living under such a threat. Furthermore, it could convince many Israelis that they don’t want to raise their children under such a threat and they may move out of the country. For those who choose to stay, they may want to move to areas such as Jerusalem as it’s an unlikely place to be attacked.

Such a scenario is very dangerous and realistic. However Iran is not an uncontrollable danger. I think the Iranian government does recognize the limits of its own power and that it wouldn’t risk its own survival. Nevertheless, its actions and continued hostility in both words and action, which are likely to continue if and when it becomes nuclear, make the prospects of a nuclear Iran very difficult to live with.


IA-Forum: The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, will be delivering a proposal for Tehran to stop enriching uranium. What do you think of the proposal and its chances for success?

Mr. Javedanfar: I think the proposal is very good. They are trying to show to the Iranian government that the West has learned from its past mistakes. In 2005, the EU offered some incentives to Iran but they realized later that they couldn’t deliver them because of American sanctions. I think the new package is likely to be realistic and would be an important carrot to facilitate negotiations. However, I’m skeptical whether Iran will accept it because Iran says that its right to enrich uranium is non-negotiable.

So while it’s a very positive gesture by the EU, I don’t think it’s going to materialize. If anything, this could be the start of stronger sanctions because it’s unlikely Iran would agree to suspend uranium enrichment. If and when Iran refuses such an incentive, it will be easier for countries in the region and the world to build up consensus for further sanctions against Iran because they could say ‘look, the Iranians are not interested in incentives so the only way we can stop them is not with carrots apparently but with sticks’


IA-Forum: Do you think economic sanctions can work?

Mr. Javedanfar: For economic sanctions to work there has to be consensus of the international community to strongly back them. They didn’t work against Iraq and one of the biggest factors why America invaded showed that those sanctions failed. We must understand lessons learned from that conflict and make sure this time that economic sanctions do have the backing of the international community, especially Persian Gulf states. Businessmen belonging to the Iranian government have thriving business transactions with Persian Gulf countries. So if we can pull the Persian Gulf countries on board for economic sanctions against the Iranian government, we could have a chance of using the economy to stop Iran’s enrichment program.


IA-Forum: What about more hard-line action, including military and the naval blockades as proposed by the Israeli government?

Mr. Javedanfar: I’m not sure that Prime Minister Olmert is aware of the fact that to impose naval blockades Israel can not do it alone and the U.S. in unlikely to do it because you need consensus to do it. If you don’t, and if the U.S. takes unilateral action by blockading Iranian ships, Iran could use that as an opportunity to attack U.S. shipping because the U.S. would be infringing on Iran’s right to trade freely with other countries. That could start a new war in the Middle East and I’m not sure the U.S. is ready to give Iran a pretext to attack its forces. I think the United States would like to have legitimacy first, if and when it decides to launch a military strike.

As for the chances of a military strike being launched against Iran, they are unfortunately increasing. The American government doesn’t seem to be interested to talk to Iran right now and the international community is seeing Iran as more and more responsible for the current crisis because of Ahmadinejad’s belligerent statements and as Iran changed their top nuclear negotiator, Ali Lanjani, with Saeed Jalili, who has far more conservative views. In his first meeting with Javier Solana, he basically said, ‘I’m not interested in what Ali Lanjani has been talking to you about for the last two years. Everything starts from zero again.’ That creates a lot of insecurity because the Europeans had been working very hard with Lanjani and now the Iranians are saying they’re not interested in previous negotiations and that they’re not going to stop their nuclear program. So the Iranian government is creating a lot of enemies for itself. I think if the international community, especially if the United States thinks this is hopeless and there is no other way of stopping Iran other than a military strike, then the chance that it would be applied would increase.


IA-Forum: The Iranian nuclear situation has spurred an increase in nuclear energy plans among many Middle East countries. Recently, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the resurgence of interest brought with it the risk of a "proliferation cascade" of nuclear arms across the region. Do you share that concern?

Mr. Javedanfar: If the international community has full confidence in Iran’s nuclear program, then Iran would have every right to have nuclear energy. But because the international community does not have confidence of Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is for energy only, then I would say the threat of proliferation increases substantially because there are countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, who will be unwilling to live with a nuclear Iran. They will want to create some kind of strategic parity because they do see Iran as a kind of competitor in the region. A case in point is Lebanon. The Saudis are very disappointed by what Hizbollah did last week when they basically attacked the Sunnis and the Sunnis are Saudi Arabia’s allies. Iran is acting this way now without nuclear weapons so imagine how it would act if it has the protection of a nuclear bomb.

So I would say the chances of the proliferation of nuclear weapons after an Iranian nuclear bomb would increase significantly, especially in front line states.


IA-Forum: Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told the U.S. Congress that Iran is directly jeopardizing the potential for peace in the Middle East. Your reaction?

Mr. Javedanfar: There’s one factor that should be taken into consideration, a question that the Americans are not asking and they should: Why is Iran so successful in the Middle East? Why is the influence of Iran spreading at such a rapid rate? It’s because the Iranians are far more effective and are more influential in reaching out to the poor, especially the Shi’ites and the Sunnis in places such as Gaza. This is why the Iranians are increasing influence in this region. It’s not because they carry a fundamentalist message. It’s because first and foremost they give social benefits such as health and education to the poor. When people see that coming from Iran rather than their own government, they are more likely to accept the Iranian way of thinking.

If Iran were to stop helping militant movements and would just focus on its social assistance to the poor in the region, I think the United States and Israel would still see it as a threat because the political DNA of the Islamic Republic is anti-American and anti-Israeli. But I think the level would be reduced significantly if Iran stops helping militant movements and just focuses on social programs. In fact, the United States and Israel could stand to learn from Iran in many of these areas. If the United States improved its soft power, programs to help the Middle East’s poor, especially now when many are suffering from high food prices, I think the acceptance and legitimacy of America in the region and even its popularity would increase significantly.


IA-Forum: Any final thoughts?

Mr. Javedanfar: Yes, the recent agreement in Lebanon is an important issue. That they’re going to choose a new president, Michel Suleiman, and that Hizbollah will be getting veto power that they wanted. That means that this organization that what started as a militant movement is now one of the powers in Lebanon. There’s also the other agreement that the electoral districts are going to be redrawn. This will help the anti-Hizbollah movement, but now the Hizbollah has veto power in Lebanon’s cabinet, it basically gives them a say over everything that happens in that country. This is phenomenal.

I think that Israel and the United States will unfortunately have a far more difficult time now of pushing Lebanon to disarm Hizbollah. So this is a major achievement for Hizbollah.

The announcement of the new President will help create stability. Today the Beirut stock exchange jumped, and I think this announcement will increase the Lebanese economy significantly. But I think the fact that Hizbollah took up arms against its own Lebanese compatriots last week will increase the level of animosity and I think the Sunnis will train themselves, strengthen themselves, just in case Hizbollah decides to repeat what it did last week. I think many Sunnis were so humiliated by Hizbollah, and the fact that they couldn’t do anything to stop them. What I think is likely to happen is that the Sunnis will try to rearm and improve their military skills.
They could turn to Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but what is worrisome is whether they might turn to some other Sunni militant organization that is very powerful in its guerrilla warfare skills and its anti-Shi’ite activities – and that’s Al-Qaida. I’m worried that, in the long term, what happened in Lebanon last week might make Al-Qaida more popular in Lebanon. This is the last thing Lebanon and the region needs.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran ”. He serves as an expert on the United Nations' Alliance of Civilizations - Global Experts Resource Project. He also runs the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (MEEPAS) from Tel Aviv.

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